The pistol shots were almost simultaneous. A cow peacefully
grazing fifty yards away received one of the bullets in her back.
She had nothing to do with the quarrel all the same.
Neither of the adversaries was hit.
Who were these two gentlemen? We do not know, although this
would be an excellent opportunity to hand down their names to
posterity. All we can say is that the elder was an Englishman and
the younger an American, and both of them were old enough to know
So far as recording in what locality the inoffensive ruminant
had just tasted her last tuft of herbage, nothing can be easier. It
was on the left bank of Niagara, not far from the suspension bridge
which joins the American to the Canadian bank three miles from the
The Englishman stepped up to the American.
“I contend, nevertheless, that it was ‘Rule
“And I say it was ‘Yankee Doodle!’”
replied the young American.
The dispute was about to begin again when one of the
seconds— doubtless in the interests of the milk
“Suppose we say it was ‘Rule Doodle’ and
‘Yankee Britannia’ and adjourn to breakfast?”
This compromise between the national airs of Great Britain and
the United States was adopted to the general satisfaction. The
Americans and Englishmen walked up the left bank of the Niagara on
their way to Goat Island, the neutral ground. between the falls.
Let us leave them in the presence of the boiled eggs and
traditional ham, and floods enough of tea to make the cataract
jealous, and trouble ourselves no more about them. It is extremely
unlikely that we shall again meet with them in this story.
Which was right; the Englishman or the American? It is not easy
to say. Anyhow the duel shows how great was the excitement, not
only in the new but also in the old world, with regard to an
inexplicable phenomenon which for a month or more had driven
everybody to distraction.
Never had the sky been so much looked at since the appearance of
man on the terrestrial globe. The night before an aerial trumpet
had blared its brazen notes through space immediately over that
part of Canada between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Some people had
heard those notes as “Yankee Doodle,” others had heard
them as “Rule Britannia,” and hence the quarrel between
the Anglo-Saxons, which ended with the breakfast on Goat Island.
Perhaps it was neither one nor the other of these patriotic tunes,
but what was undoubted by all was that these extraordinary sounds
had seemed to descend from the sky to the earth.
What could it be? Was it some exuberant aeronaut rejoicing on
that sonorous instrument of which the Renommée makes such
No! There was no balloon and there were no aeronauts. Some
strange phenomenon had occurred in the higher zones of the
atmosphere, a phenomenon of which neither the nature nor the cause
could be explained. Today it appeared over America; forty-eight
hours afterwards it was over Europe; a week later it was in Asia
over the Celestial Empire.
Hence in every country of the world—empire, kingdom, or
republic— there was anxiety which it was important to allay.
If you hear in your house strange and inexplicable noises, do you
not at once endeavor to discover the cause? And if your search is
in vain, do you not leave your house and take up your quarters in
another? But in this case the house was the terrestrial globe!
There are no means of leaving that house for the moon or Mars, or
Venus, or Jupiter, or any other planet of the solar system. And so
of necessity we have to find out what it is that takes place, not
in the infinite void, but within the atmospherical zones. In fact,
if there is no air there is no noise, and as there was a
noise—that famous trumpet, to wit— the phenomenon must
occur in the air, the density of which invariably diminishes, and
which does not extend for more than six miles round our
Naturally the newspapers took up the question in their
thousands, and treated it in every form, throwing on it both light
and darkness, recording many things about it true or false,
alarming and tranquillizing their readers—as the sale
required—and almost driving ordinary people mad. At one blow
party politics dropped unheeded—and the affairs of the world
went on none the worse for it.
But what could this thing be? There was not an observatory that
was not applied to. If an observatory could not give a satisfactory
answer what was the use of observatories? If astronomers, who
doubled and tripled the stars a hundred thousand million miles
away, could not explain a phenomenon occurring only a few miles
off, what was the use of astronomers?
The observatory at Paris was very guarded in what it said. In
the mathematical section they had not thought the statement worth
noticing; in the meridional section they knew nothing about it; in
the physical observatory they had not come across it; in the
geodetic section they had had no observation; in the meteorological
section there had been no record; in the calculating room they had
had nothing to deal with. At any rate this confession was a frank
one, and the same frankness characterized the replies from the
observatory of Montsouris and the magnetic station in the park of
St. Maur. The same respect for the truth distinguished the Bureau
The provinces were slightly more affirmative. Perhaps in the
night of the fifth and the morning of the sixth of May there had
appeared a flash of light of electrical origin which lasted about
twenty seconds. At the Pic du Midi this light appeared between nine
and ten in the evening. At the Meteorological Observatory on the
Puy de Dome the light had been observed between one and two
o’clock in the morning; at Mont Ventoux in Provence it had
been seen between two and three o’clock; at Nice it had been
noticed between three and four o’clock; while at the Semnoz
Alps between Annecy, Le Bourget, and Le Léman, it had been detected
just as the zenith was paling with the dawn.
Now it evidently would not do to disregard these observations
altogether. There could be no doubt that a light had been observed
at different places, in succession, at intervals, during some
hours. Hence, whether it had been produced from many centers in the
terrestrial atmosphere, or from one center, it was plain that the
light must have traveled at a speed of over one hundred and twenty
miles an hour.
In the United Kingdom there was much perplexity. The
observatories were not in agreement. Greenwich would not consent to
the proposition of Oxford. They were agreed on one point, however,
and that was: “It was nothing at all!”
But, said one, “It was an optical illusion!” While
the, other contended that, “It was an acoustical
illusion!” And so they disputed. Something, however, was, it
will be seen, common to both “It was an illusion.”
Between the observatory of Berlin and the observatory of Vienna
the discussion threatened to end in international complications;
but Russia, in the person of the director of the observatory at
Pulkowa, showed that both were right. It all depended on the point
of view from which they attacked the phenomenon, which, though
impossible in theory, was possible in practice.
In Switzerland, at the observatory of Sautis in the canton of
Appenzell, at the Righi, at the Gäbriss, in the passes of the St.
Gothard, at the St. Bernard, at the Julier, at the Simplon, at
Zurich, at Somblick in the Tyrolean Alps, there was a very strong
disinclination to say anything about what nobody could
prove—and that was nothing but reasonable.
But in Italy, at the meteorological stations on Vesuvius, on
Etna in the old Casa Inglesi, at Monte Cavo, the observers made no
hesitation in admitting the materiality of the phenomenon,
particularly as they had seen it by day in the form of a small
cloud of vapor, and by night in that of a shooting star. But of
what it was they knew nothing.
Scientists began at last to tire of the mystery, while they
continued to disagree about it, and even to frighten the lowly and
the ignorant, who, thanks to one of the wisest laws of nature, have
formed, form, and will form the immense majority of the
world’s inhabitants. Astronomers and meteorologists would
soon have dropped the subject altogether had not, on the night of
the 26th and 27th, the observatory of Kautokeino at Finmark, in
Norway, and during the night of the 28th and 29th that of Isfjord
at Spitzbergen—Norwegian one and Swedish the
other—found themselves agreed in recording that in the center
of an aurora borealis there had appeared a sort of huge bird, an
aerial monster, whose structure they were unable to determine, but
who, there was no doubt, was showering off from his body certain
corpuscles which exploded like bombs.
In Europe not a doubt was thrown on this observation of the
stations in Finmark and Spitzbergen. But what appeared the most
phenomenal about it was that the Swedes and Norwegians could find
themselves in agreement on any subject whatever.
There was a laugh at the asserted discovery in all the
observatories of South America, in Brazil, Peru, and La Plata, and
in those of Australia at Sydney, Adelaide, and Melbourne; and
Australian laughter is very catching.
To sum up, only one chief of a meteorological station ventured
on a decided answer to this question, notwithstanding the sarcasms
that his solution provoked. This was a Chinaman, the director of
the observatory at Zi-Ka-Wey which rises in the center of a vast
plateau less than thirty miles from the sea, having an immense
horizon and wonderfully pure atmosphere. “It is
possible,” said he, “that the object was an aviform
apparatus—a flying machine!”
But if the controversy was keen in the old world, we can imagine
what it was like in that portion of the new of which the United
States occupy so vast an area.
A Yankee, we know, does not waste time on the road. He takes the
street that leads him straight to his end. And the observatories of
the American Federation did not hesitate to do their best. If they
did not hurl their objectives at each other’s heads, it was
because they would have had to put them back just when they most
wanted to use them. In this much-disputed question the
observatories of Washington in the District of Columbia, and
Cambridge in Massachusetts, found themselves opposed by those of
Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and Ann Arbor in Michigan. The
subject of their dispute was not the nature of the body observed,
but the precise moment of its observation. All of them claimed to
have seen it the same night, the same hour, the same minute, the
same second, although the trajectory of the mysterious voyager took
it but a moderate height above the horizon. Now from Massachusetts
to Michigan, from New Hampshire to Columbia, the distance is too
great for this double observation, made at the same moment, to be
Dudley at Albany, in the state of New York, and West Point, the
military academy, showed that their colleagues were wrong by an
elaborate calculation of the right ascension and declination of the
But later on it was discovered that the observers had been
deceived in the body, and that what they had seen was an aerolite.
This aerolite could not be the object in question, for how could an
aerolite blow a trumpet?
It was in vain that they tried to get rid of this trumpet as an
optical illusion. The ears were no more deceived than the eyes.
Something had assuredly been seen, and something had assuredly been
heard. In the night of the 12th and 13th of May—a very dark
night— the observers at Yale College, in the Sheffield
Science School, had been able to take down a few bars of a musical
phrase in D major, common time, which gave note for note, rhythm
for rhythm, the chorus of the Chant du Départ.
“Good,” said the Yankee wags. “There is a
French band well up in the air.”
“But to joke is not to answer.” Thus said the
observatory at Boston, founded by the Atlantic Iron Works Society,
whose opinions in matters of astronomy and meteorology began to
have much weight in the world of science.
Then there intervened the observatory at Cincinnati, founded in
1870, on Mount Lookout, thanks to the generosity of Mr. Kilgour,
and known for its micrometrical measurements of double stars. Its
director declared with the utmost good faith that there had
certainly been something, that a traveling body had shown itself at
very short periods at different points in the atmosphere, but what
were the nature of this body, its dimensions, its speed, and its
trajectory, it was impossible to say.
It was then a journal whose publicity is immense—the
“New York Herald”—received the anonymous
“There will be in the recollection of most people the
rivalry which existed a few years ago between the two heirs of the
Begum of Ragginahra, the French doctor Sarrasin, the city of
Frankville, and the German engineer Schultze, in the city of
Steeltown, both in the south of Oregon in the United States.
“It will not have been forgotten that, with the object of
destroying Frankville, Herr Schultze launched a formidable engine,
intended to beat down the town and annihilate it at a single
“Still less will it be forgotten that this engine, whose
initial velocity as it left the mouth of the monster cannon had
been erroneously calculated, had flown off at a speed exceeding by
sixteen times that of ordinary projectiles—or about four
hundred and fifty miles an hour—that it did not fall to the
ground, and that it passed into an aerolitic stag, so as to circle
for ever round our globe.
“Why should not this be the body in question?”
Very ingenious, Mr. Correspondent on the “New York
Herald!” but how about the trumpet? There was no trumpet in
Herr Schulze’s projectile!
So all the explanations explained nothing, and all the observers
had observed in vain. There remained only the suggestion offered by
the director of Zi-Ka-Wey. But the opinion of a Chinaman!
The discussion continued, and there was no sign of agreement.
Then came a short period of rest. Some days elapsed without any
object, aerolite or otherwise, being described, and without any
trumpet notes being heard in the atmosphere. The body then had
fallen on some part of the globe where it had been difficult to
trace it; in the sea, perhaps. Had it sunk in the depths of the
Atlantic, the Pacific, or the Indian Ocean? What was to be said in
But then, between the 2nd and 9th of June, there came a new
series of facts which could not possibly be explained by the
unaided existence of a cosmic phenomenon.
In a week the Hamburgers at the top of St. Michael’s
Tower, the Turks on the highest minaret of St. Sophia, the
Rouennais at the end of the metal spire of their cathedral, the
Strasburgers at the summit of their minister, the Americans on the
head of the Liberty statue at the entrance of the Hudson and on the
Bunker Hill monument at Boston, the Chinese at the spike of the
temple, of the Four Hundred Genii at Canton, the Hindus on the
sixteenth terrace of the pyramid of the temple at Tanjore, the San
Pietrini at the cross of St. Peter’s at Rome, the English at
the cross of St. Paul’s in London, the Egyptians at the appex
of the Great Pyramid of Ghizeh, the Parisians at the lighting
conductor of the iron tower of the Exposition of 1889, a thousand
feet high, all of them beheld a flag floating from some one of
these inaccessible points.
And the flag was black, dotted with stars, and it bore a golden
sun in its center.